Repetition is one of the most powerful Jewish tools for the cultivation of wisdom and virtue. We learn this lesson, repeatedly, at this time of year as we finish the reading of the Torah, when we immediately start again from the beginning.
When it comes to the just-ended holiday season and our completion of the Torah on Shemini Atzeret-Simchat Torah, the Tur (Orach Chaim 699) teaches: “We call it Simchat Torah because on it we complete the Torah. It is appropriate to be joyous when we finish it and we are accustomed to begin Bereshit immediately so that there will be no opportunity for the Satan to accuse us, saying: ‘They have already finished it and they do not want to read it again.’” The Satan, our internal voice of opposition, tells us that we have completed our learning and can rest. But following the end of our learning cycle we embrace the communal momentum to continue this cycle once again.
It is not mere repetition but a search for novel insights in Torah study that matters most, as the Mishnah (Avot 5:26) reminds us: “Ben Bag Bag says: ‘Turn it [the Torah] over and turn it over and study it because everything is in it. Look into it. Become grey and old over it. Do not move from it because there is no greater measure than it.’ Ben He He says: ‘According to the trouble [in Torah study] is the reward.’”
Each time we wrestle with the text, we can find new insights that overturn our past understanding, as we see from the Talmud’s (Chagiga 9b) teaching, “One that repeated a chapter a hundred times is not to be compared with one who repeated it a hundred and one times.” The Sages taught that Jewish wisdom is attained not primarily through quickness of intellect but through the deepest internalization process, a process that takes hold only with time, patience, and much repetition. Our greatest sages exhibited the virtue of patience in their pedagogical approach (Eruvin 54b): “R. Pereda had a pupil whom he taught his lesson four hundred times before the latter could master it.”
In The Use of Pleasure, French philosopher Michel Foucault wrote these encouraging words:
As to those for whom to work hard, to begin and begin again, to attempt and be mistaken, to go back and rework everything from top to bottom, and still find reason to hesitate from one step to the next—as to those, in short, for whom to work in the midst of uncertainty and apprehension is tantamount to failure, all I can say is that clearly we are not from the same planet.
Foucault reminds us that we must have the courage and humility to live with uncertainty and to challenge our previous intellectual structures – not that we should live in perpetual doubt or paralysis, but so that through creative destruction we may build better, stronger, lasting structures of the intellect and spirit.
Of course, we do not merely repeat the public reading of a single passage; we create rituals and habits that broaden us without making them rote. The Rambam explains that everything is according to the abundance of a person’s actions (ve’hakol lefi rov hamaaseh), that we grow mainly through the quantity of our good deeds rather than through their quality. Excellent performance and pure intentionality are goals, of course, but frequency make virtue sustainable.
Rav Eliyahu Dessler taught (Michtav MeEliyahu, Vol. 3, p. 66), based upon the works of Rabbi Moshe Chayyim Luzzato, why some feel the divine presence and some do not: “The limitation is with the receiver, since the windows of his heart are polluted … the more one cleans them, the more light will enter.” We need constant acts of cleaning and refreshing, of rebooting the system, to ensure we can continue to see the world in its deepest and truest ways.
It may not surprise us to think that professional musicians or athletes excel in their craft in large part due to their daily repetition of exercises, or that writers improve their skills by consistently practicing and rewriting. However, our bodies also follow a repetitive pattern known as the circadian rhythm, which cycles about every 24 hours: When it gets dark, we tend to get tired and ready for sleep; before we wake, our hormones adjust so that we are alert when we arise. When this rhythm is disrupted, as during long airplane flights, we experience “jet lag.” If these disruptions become chronic, the body suffers. Recent studies have demonstrated that long-term sleep deprivation reduces our cognitive performance and increases our risk for such health problems as hypertension, diabetes, obesity, and cardiovascular disease.
These scientific findings appear to confirm the model of constructive repetitition and practice advocated by teachers and coaches today, and throughout history by poets, philosophers, and rabbis. Aristotle taught: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” Once we are fully committed to repetition and make virtuous practices our habits, they can transform us. This theme was later taken up by the 17th-century poet John Dryden, who wrote: “We first make our habits and then our habits make us.”
So as we start the Torah once again this year, we do so with the intention to discover new wisdom in the text and new clarity in our self-understanding as individuals and as a community. On a moral level we repeat acts of kindness each day, since our work on ourselves and in the world is never complete. On an intellectual and spiritual level we refresh the page, as it were, at least every year, since our work in understanding ourselves, the world, and the Torah is never complete. Titchadeish! Wishing all a blessed new start!
Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Founder and President of Uri L'Tzedek, the Senior Rabbi at Kehilath Israel, and is the author of "Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century." Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America!"